Image: HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter
U.S. Air Force
American airmen stationed at Lakenheath, England, set off on a "very complex" rescue mission to save an injured sailor aboard a vessel about 600 miles off Ireland's coast on Wednesday.
updated 12/11/2008 8:43:47 AM ET 2008-12-11T13:43:47

American airmen rescued an injured sailor in a dramatic rescue hundreds of miles off the coast of Ireland, the U.S. military said Thursday.

Two British-based U.S. Air Force search-and-rescue helicopters, a KC-135 tanker aircraft and a Hercules C-130 aircraft were dispatched Wednesday after U.K. officials received the distress call.

A Burmese sailor had suffered serious head injuries after falling 40 feet aboard the Liberian-registered cargo ship Anna Rickmers in the Atlantic Ocean, about 600 miles southwest of Ireland.

Michael Mulford, spokesman for the British Royal Air Force's rescue center in Kinloss, Scotland, said that American colleagues were asked to assist because British helicopters have a range of only about 250 miles.

The American aircraft were able to "daisy-chain" to repeatedly refuel the helicopters and Hercules during the nine-hour operation, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Gallahan said. The RAF also sent a Nimrod aircraft to assist in the rescue.

The U.S. crews reached the scene at around 6 p.m. local time (1 p.m. EST) on Wednesday night.

Airmen with the 56th Rescue Squadron were winched onto the vessel before the injured sailor was stabilized and brought aboard a U.S. Pave Hawk helicopter about 320 miles west of Ireland.

Capt. Joel Soukup, the U.S. Air Force mission commander, said the helicopters stayed in the vicinity of the ship for about 2 1/2 hours, often hovering just 150 feet above the vessel.

'Exceptional challenges'
At times the pilots encountered visibility of just one-quarter of a mile.

The injured sailor was flown to Shannon, Ireland, late Wednesday. The victim remained hospitalized on Thursday.

Mulford described the operation as "very complex" and said the roughly 40 airmen involved faced "exceptional challenges."

It was the third time in about 10 years that the U.S. Air Force has been asked to assist in a long-range search-and-rescue operation in Europe, Mulford said.

The helicopters are based at RAF Lakenheath, which is home to about 4,500 American airmen.

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